TEMPE, Ariz. — Albert Pujols plays for the Angels, and so does Josh Hamilton. Total rebuilding is not an option.
It could have been. The Angels' minor league system generally ranks as the worst in the business. The major league team has not reached the playoffs in four consecutive years. The Angels are coming off their worst season in a decade, even with the emergence of baseball's best player, Mike Trout.
As the Angels stumbled through the waning days of their lost summer, Jerry Dipoto had absolutely no idea whether he would keep his job. The second-year general manager started preparations for the 2014 season entirely unsure whether he would have the chance to implement them.
In the days after the 2013 season ended, as the playoffs went on without the Angels, owner Arte Moreno told Dipoto he would return. One more year, the last in his contract, with no guarantees beyond that.
The mandate is to win now, and win later. Dipoto insists he did not consider stocking up on veterans when he made his off-season shopping list, at least not for the purpose of a short-term fix that might enhance his chance to keep his job.
"That's not in my DNA," he said.
Dipoto inherited an 86-win team with a bloated payroll and a depleted farm system. After two years, the Angels were a 78-win team with a bloated payroll, depleted farm system, and a frustrated owner who had sacrificed financial flexibility and first-round picks in consecutive years for the undeniable star power of Pujols and Hamilton.
"You always want to make sure to create good balance," Dipoto said. "The best representation of the job you do over time is what you leave behind. At some point, I will no longer be the general manager here, whether it's my choice or someone else's. That's life.
"The thing for me that's most important is that, when that day comes and the baton gets handed off, you're handing somebody a better situation."
The Angels had little money to spend and few prospects to trade. They needed a third baseman and pitchers, and they needed to get younger.
Dipoto did what he could, with two big moves. He got the third baseman and a reliever — David Freese and Fernando Salas, respectively — and the Angels got older. He got starters Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago, and the Angels got younger.
Of the nine players in the projected everyday lineup, Trout (22) and fellow outfielder Kole Calhoun (26) are the only ones younger than 30. Freese, catcher Chris Iannetta, and infielders Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick each is 30. Raul Ibanez, the designated hitter, is 41.
"We're not exactly old in the tooth at critical positions," Dipoto said. "We have a lot of veteran players in that 29 to 31 zone. That is when you win.
"We like the players we have. We have done what we can to augment the 25-man roster with younger players at the major league level who can help, and then we have a lot of good role players and a couple of potential everyday guys who can augment it."
Dipoto and assistant general manager Scott Servais have tried to rebuild the minor league system. The Angels, like all teams, need raw talent most of all.
As the Angels have learned the hard way, it is nearly impossible to revitalize a farm system without a steady stream of first-round picks. In four of the last seven drafts, the Angels' top pick has been no higher than No. 58.
The teams that finish with the worst records draft at the beginning of the first round, and they keep those top picks even if they sign a premium free agent. The teams with better records draft toward the end of the first round, where signing a premium free agent, like Pujols or Hamilton, means the forfeiture of that first-round choice.
"We always want to be picking at the end of the first round. But we always want to be picking," Dipoto said. "That's what we haven't been able to do."
Dipoto essentially is walking a tightrope, without a safety net beneath him. He cites the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays as teams that have shown how to win and build, rather than rebuild, at the same time.
His job depends on that. He could fail at winning now and succeed at winning later, although the next Angels general manager might reap the benefits.
"We're trying to do the best we can in balancing both of those desires, to be world champion competitors now and to build something that will allow us to sustain," Dipoto said.
"It's a delicate balance. In about a half a dozen years, we'll find out if we're good at it or not."
Twitter: @BillShaikinCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times